Creating the creative leader

Man holding a canvas with the image repeated on each canvas - abstract image

Simple systems hardly exist anymore. Almost everything has a complex causality that requires a certain combination of skills and belief systems to lead the creation of value with no strict set of rules to follow, leadership included.

The traditional skill-set of leaders is slowly being substituted for a more dynamic and creative approach – call it creative leadership. Early adopters are fluid, agile and are not afraid to fail on the path to discovering what really works.

The creative leader is one that is open to radical changes in direction and is not bound by the usual expectations or restraints of a leader. Perfect for today’s climate when it’s proving increasingly difficult to predict how business will look in 12 months, let alone 5 years. Their unbound style allows them to navigate, sometimes even benefit from unpredictability, creating innovative solutions and providing clarity for those around them who may be less comfortable with the fluidity they exhibit.

Calling all creative leaders

In this uncertain and increasingly complex world, creativity has become a critical concern for most organisations, with research showing ‘lack of creativity’ as the most serious shortcoming in new hires as well as those in leadership roles. A crucial skill when more agile and disruptive companies such as Airbnb, Uber and Monzo are completely overhauling industries, thinking outside the box and challenging the outdated state of the current market.

But how do we identify and develop the creativity of our leaders? And how can we then encourage these leaders to foster a culture of innovation and fluidity in our organisations and employees?

The four pillars of creative leadership

Firstly, it’s important to understand the key behaviours that differentiate a ‘creative leader’, enabling you to identify and ultimately harness the power of creativity. Below we detail four key characteristics of a creative leader (THINKs Creative Leadership Model):

  • Explorative mind-set – having the freedom and confidence to challenge norms and existing mind-sets. To analyse and evaluate a situation and to adopt critical thinking as well as creative thinking, allowing you to see past the learning edges of what you know and to encourage and enable these skills in the rest of your team. It’s quite simply to think outside oneself and to apply spontaneous thinking to a given situation.
  • Envisioning a better future – developing creative solutions, thinking on your feet and creating an inspiring work environment for you, your team and those around you. The creative leader works closely with their team, leading them to new ideas, creating a strong platform for learning and innovative thinking around the business.
  • Driving break-through change – turning risk and challenges into opportunities. Enabling behaviours that help people see beyond what is in front of them to new solutions and new ideas for growth. Resilience is an important trait in the creative leader, not all risks will lead to success so they must have the mental space necessary to take a step back, review a situation and decide on the right decisions, allowing those around them to feel more comfortable when going through break-through change.
  • Passion and Purpose – focus on the energy around the business and take time to understand how people feel about leadership. Is everyone aligned to the organisations mission? Is there buy in at exec level? Is there an understanding of leadership and what is expected of people of all levels around the business? The collective power of the leadership team and the creative thinkers will help foster the necessary culture for change and create a solid sense of alignment to the organisation’s mission.

Fostering a culture of creative leadership

So you’ve identified your creative leaders, but what actions can you, the organisation, take to create an environment where creative leadership thrives? During our recent roundtable event in London, we explored this very topic in conjunction with communication experts Masgroves. What transpired was that developing these four pillars required a different approach, some of which, depending on where an organisation is on the spectrum of creative leadership, was as much about actions as it was mindset to allow a culture of creative leadership to embed throughout the organisation.

  • Top team development. Many organisations may find it difficult to get buy in from the top leadership levels because, fundamentally, you are asking them to rethink the leadership culture of the organisation. So making sure the team at the executive level are aligned is essential. Start with the mission of the company and how a creative leadership culture will help to achieve that. What behaviours and styles they need to exhibit so that it distils throughout the organisation. And don’t forget to support those that may find the transition more difficult than others.
  • Teach leaders how to be coaches. Amassing your own pool of leadership coaches helps you to have quick access to leadership expertise and someone who knows the culture and the aims of the business. These types of people are essential for driving the creative leadership culture you wish to see day in day out. Be careful not to make it overly formal though, as with any coaching, it’s about helping people find the answers themselves and also reinforcing that it’s okay to do things different – in fact that’s what is positively encouraged.
  • Out with the old, in with the creative. There’s no point deciding to adopt a creative leadership culture if how you engage and communicate with employees remains traditional. Creative leadership is a cultural change and how leaders engage with each other and employees needs to be equally creative and purposeful. There needs to be a constant simmer with leaders being highly visible. Some ideas shared by Stewart Thomas of Masgroves on how organisations can achieve this included:
    • Bimbles – replacing long meetings covering multiple topics that see leaders disengage with short 15 minute sessions where leaders target a part of the business armed with a purpose i.e. to recognise/reward people, gather information or to learn if information has been properly communicated.
    • Encourage engagement and sharing of ideas – no town hall meetings. Innovative businesses are much more informal. Structured walkabouts or Pizza slice sessions that have a purpose allow for more relaxed two-way communication, encouraging the sharing of ideas and creativity.

A creative leadership culture can help propel organisations forward. However, evolving your current leadership model and your leaders will take time to embed, and as with any change it is something that at times, can feel too difficult. That’s not to say that organisations shouldn’t bother, the benefits are significant compared to the consequences of not doing so.